Sunday, July 10, 2011

For All You Soccer Haters Out There

Hope Solo, US Goalkeeper, diving to block away a Brazilian PK at the end of the game. This block delivered the US victory. Solo had major reconstructive surgery on her right shoulder 9 months ago, and has difficulty raising that arm abouve shoulder level. However, she fought through the pain, hampered by several hard hits on that shoulder during the game, to make several outstanding plays, including this clincher.

The US Women's National Team beat Brazil in the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup today. It was one of the most dramatic games, of any sport, in history.

The game went full time (90 minutes), then through full overtime (30 minutes), and into penalty kicks before it was decided. The US played the last 55 minutes of the game with only 10 players, due to a questionable officiating decision. The US was prevented from winning in regulation due to another questionable officiating decision. The US went down 2-1 in overtime, again due to a questionable officiating decision. The US tied the game on an Abby Wambach header in the second minute of stoppage time after the second overtime period, after full time. The official stats will show the goal scored in the 122nd minute, making it the latest goal ever scored in World Cup competition. If you add up all the stoppage times, the goal actually took place in the 130th minute (but that is not the 'official' time).

Abby Wambach (20) heading in the ball in the 122nd minute. The crossing pass came from Megan Rapinoe - a 40 yard kick hit on the dead run, off her left foot (she's a right footed player), that would have not connected had it been 12 inches off in any direction when it reached Abby. And they call a US football kicker accurate if he can get it between goal posts from 40 yards!

The US took the match in a penalty kick shootout, 5 goals to 3.

Brazil is the #2 ranked team in the world. The US is ranked #1

The game should be an embarrassment to FIFA. The officiating was horrendous. Bad calls went against both teams, but were more detrimental to the US side. To have that kind of performance from an officiating crew at this level of competition was pathetic.

The only thing that keeps this from being the greatest game in women's soccer history is that it took place in the quarterfinals. The US team's penalty kick victory over China in 1999 to win the World Cup that year still ranks as the best, simply because it was for the title. BTW - that 1999 game was played 12 years ago to the day.

I am a fan of women's soccer, courtesy of my daughter's involvement in the sport - so my perspective is not totally neutral. That being said, this was an incredible game! I have not been as excited about a sporting event as it happened since that 1999 World Cup final - any sporting event!

This game will be remembered by fans of women's soccer in the same breath as that 1999 victory. However, it will not be treated as highly as it should by others. If a gutsy, dramatic, long, exhausting, thrilling, decided in the last second game had happened in baseball, or pro football, or college football, it would be immortalized in sports lore as one of the greatest events in sports history.

These women really should be recognized for their accomplishment, and for the outstanding way they represent our country in international competition.

A postscript - These women wrap themselves in our flag when they play as our team. They train year round. They play dozens of games as preparation for the Olympics and the World Cup, where they represent us. Most of them play professional soccer, albeit for very small salaries when compared with other pro sports. Very few of them get endorsement deals. Very few of them have careers that last more than a few years. They leave their blood, sweat, tears, torn knee joints, broken ankles, torn groins, and ripped muscles out there on the field for nothing more than the honor of representing the United States.

All they ask in return is a little fan support, a little recognition.

Update - well, it didn't end the way we wanted it to. The US beat France to get to the final game, to face Japan. Japan won in a penalty kick shootout. Japan, who no one thought would make it to the playoffs of the tournament, much less the final. Japan, who had never defeated the US in women's soccer before.

Before the game, pundits were crowning the US, and hoping Japan at least put up a good game. After the game, pundits were declaring Japan the team of destiny, the team that fate watched over, the team who needed to win to give their country a lift post-tsunami. Maybe ...

My take is that the US lost because of poor accuracy (missing the goal on 12 scoring opportunities in the first half), poor defensive lapses that let Japan come from behind twice to tie the game, and very poor PK performance. (Note to US penalty kickers - kicking the ball 10 feet above the crossbar and lobbing hospital ball passes to the goalkeeper's midsection isn't going to score much.)

In the eyes of Japan and much of the rest of the world, this now becomes the most exciting game in World Cup history. You get to do that when you win. It relegates the US performance against Brazil to a footnote ... and that is a shame.

FIFA and neutral observers will be proud of the game, as they should. It was dramatic, exciting, fair, well played, and very well officiated. It was refreshing to watch a game that didn't feature players diving, playing dirty, and officials screwing up.

It hurts to be a US fan right now, but thank you ladies. It was a heck of a trip you took us on.
Photos courtesy Getty Images.

No comments: